Elon Musk Life in South Africa


AFRICA
THE PUBLIC FIRST MET ELON REEVE MUSK IN 1984. The South African trade publication PC
and Of ice Technology published the source code to a video game Musk had designed. Called
Blastar, the science-fiction-inspired space game required 167 lines of instructions to run. This was
back in the day when early computer users were required to type out commands to make their
machines do much of anything. In that context, Musk’s game did not shine as a marvel of computer
science but it certainly surpassed what most twelve-year-olds were kicking out at the time. Its
coverage in the magazine netted Musk five hundred dollars and provided some early hints about his character. The Blastar spread on page 69 of the magazine shows that the young man wanted to go by
the sci-fi-author-sounding name E. R. Musk and that he already had visions of grand conquests
dancing in his head. The brief explainer states, “In this game you have to destroy an alien space
freighter, which is carrying deadly Hydrogen Bombs and Status Beam Machines. This game makes
good use of sprites and animation, and in this sense makes the listing worth reading.” (As of this
writing, not even the Internet knows what “status beam machines” are.)
A boy fantasizing about space and battles between good and evil is anything but amazing. A boy
who takes these fantasies seriously is more remarkable. Such was the case with the young Elon Musk.
By the middle of his teenage years, Musk had blended fantasy and reality to the point that they were
hard to separate in his mind. Musk came to see man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation. If
that meant pursuing cleaner energy technology or building spaceships to extend the human species’s
reach, then so be it. Musk would find a way to make these things happen. “Maybe I read too many
comics as a kid,” Musk said. “In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world. It
seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”
At around age fourteen, Musk had a full-on existential crisis. He tried to deal with it like many
gifted adolescents do, turning to religious and philosophical texts. Musk sampled a handful of
ideologies and then ended up more or less back where he had started, embracing the sci-fi lessons
found in one of the most influential books in his life: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by
Douglas Adams. “He points out that one of the really tough things is figuring out what questions to
ask,” Musk said. “Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy. I came to the
conclusion that really we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in
order to better understand what questions to ask.” The teenage Musk then arrived at his ultralogical
mission statement. “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective
enlightenment,” he said.
It’s easy enough to spot some of the underpinnings of Musk’s search for purpose. Born in 1971, he
grew up in Pretoria, a large city in the northeastern part of South Africa, just an hour’s drive from
Johannesburg. The specter of apartheid was present throughout his childhood, as South Africa
frequently boiled over with tension and violence. Blacks and whites clashed, as did blacks of
different tribes. Musk turned four years old just days after the Soweto Uprising, in which hundreds of
black students died while protesting decrees of the white government. For years South Africa faced
sanctions imposed by other nations due to its racist policies. Musk had the luxury of traveling abroad
during his childhood and would have gotten a flavor for how outsiders viewed South Africa.
But what had even more of an impact on Musk’s personality was the white Afrikaner culture so
prevalent in Pretoria and the surrounding areas. Hypermasculine behavior was celebrated and tough
jocks were revered. While Musk enjoyed a level of privilege, he lived as an outsider whose reserved
personality and geeky inclinations ran against the prevailing attitudes of the time. His notion that
something about the world had gone awry received constant reinforcement, and Musk, almost from his
earliest days, plotted an escape from his surroundings and dreamed of a place that would allow his
personality and dreams to flourish. He saw America in its most clichéd form, as the land of
opportunity and the most likely stage for making the realization of his dreams possible. This is how it
came to pass that a lonesome, gawky South African boy who talked with the utmost sincerity about
pursuing “collective enlightenment” ended up as America’s most adventurous industrialist.
When Musk did finally reach the United States in his twenties, it marked a return to his ancestral
roots. Family trees suggest that ancestors bearing the Swiss German surname of Haldeman on the
maternal side of Musk’s family left Europe for New York during the Revolutionary War. From New
York, they spread out to the prairies of the Midwest—Illinois and Minnesota, in particular. “We had
people that fought on both sides of the Civil War apparently and were a family of farmers,” said Scott
Haldeman, Musk’s uncle and the unofficial family historian.
Throughout his childhood, boys teased Musk because of his unusual name. He earned the first part
of it from his great-grandfather John Elon Haldeman, who was born in 1872
1 and grew up in Illinois
before heading to Minnesota. There he would meet his wife, Almeda Jane Norman, who was five
years younger. By 1902, the couple had settled down in a log cabin in the central Minnesota town of
Pequot and given birth to their son Joshua Norman Haldeman, Musk’s grandfather. He would grow up
to become an eccentric and exceptional man and a model for Musk.*
Joshua Norman Haldeman is described as an athletic, self-reliant boy. In 1907, his family moved
to the prairies of Saskatchewan, and his father died shortly thereafter when Joshua was just seven,
leaving the boy to help run the house. He took to the wide-open land and picked up bronco horseback
riding, boxing, and wrestling. Haldeman would break in horses for local farmers, often hurting
himself in the process, and he organized one of Canada’s first rodeos. Family pictures show Joshua
dressed in a decorative pair of chaps demonstrating his rope-spinning skills. As a teenager, Haldeman
left home to get a degree from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Iowa and then returned to
Saskatchewan to become a farmer.
When the depression hit in the 1930s, Haldeman fell into a financial crisis. He could not afford to
keep up with bank loans on his equipment and had five thousand acres of land seized. “From then on,
Dad didn’t believe in banks or holding on to money,” said Scott Haldeman, who would go on to
receive his chiropractic degree from the same school as his father and become one of the world’s top
spinal pain experts. After losing the farm around 1934, Haldeman lived something of a nomadic
existence that his grandson would replicate in Canada decades later. Standing six feet, three inches,
he did odd jobs as a construction worker and rodeo performer before settling down as a
chiropractor.*
By 1948, Haldeman had married a Canadian dance studio instructor, Winnifred Josephine
Fletcher, or Wyn, and built a booming chiropractic practice. That year, the family, which already
included a son and a daughter, welcomed twin daughters Kaye and Maye, Musk’s mother. The
children lived in a three-story, twenty-room house that included a dance studio to let Wyn keep
teaching students. Ever in search of something new to do, Haldeman had picked up flying and bought
his own plane. The family gained some measure of notoriety as people heard about Haldeman and his
wife packing their kids into the back of the single-engine craft and heading off on excursions all
around North America. Haldeman would often show up at political and chiropractic meetings in the
plane and later wrote a book with his wife called The Flying Haldemans: Pity the Poor Private
Pilot.
Haldeman seemed to have everything going for him when, in 1950, he decided to give it all away.
The doctor-cum-politician had long railed against government interference in the lives of individuals
and had come to see the Canadian bureaucracy as too meddlesome. A man who forbade swearing,
smoking, Coca-Cola, and refined flour at his house, Haldeman contended that the moral character of
Canada had started to decline. Haldeman also possessed an enduring lust for adventure. And so, over
the course of a few months, the family sold their house and dance and chiropractic practices and
decided to move to South Africa—a place Haldeman had never been. Scott Haldeman remembers
helping his father disassemble the family’s Bellanca Cruisair (1948) airplane and put it into crates
before shipping it to Africa. Once in South Africa, the family rebuilt the plane and used it to scour the
country for a nice place to live, ultimately settling on Pretoria, where Haldeman set up a new
chiropractic practice.
The family’s spirit for adventure seemed to know no bounds. In 1952, Joshua and Wyn made a
22,000-mile round-trip journey in their plane, flying up through Africa to Scotland and Norway. Wyn
served as the navigator and, though not a licensed pilot, would sometimes take over the flying duties.
The couple topped this effort in 1954, flying 30,000 miles to Australia and back. Newspapers
reported on the couple’s trip, and they’re believed to be the only private pilots to get from Africa to
Australia in a single-engine plane.*
When not up in the air, the Haldemans were out in the bush going on great, monthlong expeditions
to find the Lost City of the Kalahari Desert, a supposed abandoned city in southern Africa. A family
photo from one of these excursions shows the five children in the middle of the African bush. They
have gathered around a large metal pot being warmed by the embers of a campfire. The children look
relaxed as they sit in folding chairs, legs crossed and reading books. Behind them is the ruby-red
Bellanca plane, a tent, and a car. The tranquility of the scene belies how dangerous these trips were.
During one incident, the family’s truck hit a tree stump and forced the bumper through the radiator.
Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no means of communication, Joshua worked for three days to fix
the truck, while the family hunted for food. At other times, hyenas and leopards would circle the
campfire at night, and, one morning, the family woke to find a lion three feet away from their main
table. Joshua grabbed the first object he could find—a lamp—waved it, and told the lion to go away.
And it did.*
The Haldemans had a laissez-faire approach to raising their children, which would extend over
the generations to Musk. Their kids were never punished, as Joshua believed they would intuit their
way to proper behavior. When mom and dad went off on their tremendous flights, the kids were left at
home. Scott Haldeman can’t remember his father setting foot at his school a single time even though
his son was captain of the rugby team and a prefect. “To him, that was all just anticipated,” said Scott
Haldeman. “We were left with the impression that we were capable of anything. You just have to
make a decision and do it. In that sense, my father would be very proud of Elon.”
Haldeman died in 1974 at the age of seventy-two. He’d been doing practice landings in his plane
and didn’t see a wire attached to a pair of poles. The wire caught the plane’s wheels and flipped the
craft, and Haldeman broke his neck. Elon was a toddler at the time. But throughout his childhood,
Elon heard many stories about his grandfather’s exploits and sat through countless slide shows that
documented his travels and trips through the bush. “My grandmother told these tales of how they
almost died several times along their journeys,” Musk said. “They were flying in a plane with
literally no instruments—not even a radio, and they had road maps instead of aerial maps, and some
of those weren’t even correct. My grandfather had this desire for adventure, exploration doing crazy
things.” Elon buys into the idea that his unusual tolerance for risk may well have been inherited
directly from his grandfather. Many years after the last slide show, Elon tried to find and purchase the
red Bellanca plane but could not locate it.
Maye Musk, Elon’s mother, grew up idolizing her parents. In her youth, she was considered a
nerd. She liked math and science and did well at the coursework. By the age of fifteen, however,
people had taken notice of some of her other attributes. Maye was gorgeous. Tall with ash-blond hair,
Maye had the high cheekbones and angular features that would make her stand out anywhere. A friend
of the family ran a modeling school, and Maye took some courses. On the weekends, she did runway
shows, magazine shoots, occasionally showed up at a senator’s or ambassador’s home for an event,
and ended up as a finalist for Miss South Africa. (Maye has continued to model into her sixties,
appearing on the covers of magazines like New York and Elle and in Beyoncé’s music videos.)
Maye and Elon’s father, Errol Musk, grew up in the same neighborhood. They met for the first
time when Maye, born in 1948, was about eleven. Errol was the cool kid to Maye’s nerd but had a
crush on her for years. “He fell in love with me because of my legs and my teeth,” said Maye. The
two would date on and off throughout their time at university. And, according to Maye, Errol spent
about seven years as a relentless suitor seeking her hand in marriage and eventually breaking her will.
“He just never stopped proposing,” she said.
Their marriage was complicated from the start. Maye became pregnant during the couple’s
honeymoon and gave birth to Elon on June 28, 1971, nine months and two days after her wedding day.
While they may not have enjoyed marital bliss, the couple carved out a decent life for themselves in
Pretoria. Errol worked as a mechanical and electrical engineer and handled large projects such as
office buildings, retail complexes, residential subdivisions, and an air force base, while Maye set up
a practice as a dietician. A bit more than a year after Elon’s birth came his brother Kimbal, and soon
thereafter came their sister Tosca.
Elon exhibited all the traits of a curious, energetic tot. He picked things up easily, and Maye, like
many mothers do, pegged her son as brilliant and precocious. “He seemed to understand things
quicker than the other kids,” she said. The perplexing thing was that Elon seemed to drift off into a
trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his
eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf. “Sometimes, he
just didn’t hear you,” said Maye. Doctors ran a series of tests on Elon, and elected to remove his
adenoid glands, which can improve hearing in children. “Well, it didn’t change,” said Maye. Elon’s
condition had far more to do with the wiring of his mind than how his auditory system functioned. “He
goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world,” Maye said. “He still does that. Now
I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”
Other children did not respond well to these dreamlike states. You could do jumping jacks right
beside Musk or yell at him, and he would not even notice. He kept right on thinking, and those around
him judged that he was either rude or really weird. “I do think Elon was always a little different but
in a nerdy way,” Maye said. “It didn’t endear him to his peers.”
For Musk, these pensive moments were wonderful. At five and six, he had found a way to block
out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task. Part of this ability stemmed from
the very visual way in which Musk’s mind worked. He could see images in his mind’s eye with a
clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer
software. “It seems as though the part of the brain that’s usually reserved for visual processing—the
part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes—gets taken over by internal thought
processes,” Musk said. “I can’t do this as much now because there are so many things demanding my
attention but, as a kid, it happened a lot. That large part of your brain that’s used to handle incoming
images gets used for internal thinking.” Computers split their hardest jobs between two types of chips.
There are graphics chips that deal with processing the images produced by a television show stream
or video game and computational chips that handle general purpose tasks and mathematical
operations. Over time, Musk has ended up thinking that his brain has the equivalent of a graphics chip.
It allows him to see things out in the world, replicate them in his mind, and imagine how they might
change or behave when interacting with other objects. “For images and numbers, I can process their
interrelationships and algorithmic relationships,” Musk said. “Acceleration, momentum, kinetic
energy—how those sorts of things will be affected by objects comes through very vividly.”
The most striking part of Elon’s character as a young boy was his compulsion to read. From a
very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times. “It was not unusual for him to read
ten hours a day,” said Kimbal. “If it was the weekend, he could go through two books in a day.” The
family went on numerous shopping excursions in which they realized mid-trip that Elon had gone
missing. Maye or Kimbal would pop into the nearest bookstore and find Elon somewhere near the
back sitting on the floor and reading in one of his trancelike states.
As Elon got older, he would take himself to the bookstore when school ended at 2 P.M. and stay
there until about 6 P.M., when his parents returned home from work. He plowed through fiction books
and then comics and then nonfiction titles. “Sometimes they kicked me out of the store, but usually
not,” Elon said. He listed The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and Robert
Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as some of his favorites, alongside The Hitchhiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy. “At one point, I ran out of books to read at the school library and the
neighborhood library,” Musk said. “This is maybe the third or fourth grade. I tried to convince the
librarian to order books for me. So then, I started to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That was so
helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. You realize there are all these things out there.”
Elon, in fact, churned through two sets of encyclopedias—a feat that did little to help him make
friends. The boy had a photographic memory, and the encyclopedias turned him into a fact factory. He
came off as a classic know-it-all. At the dinner table, Tosca would wonder aloud about the distance
from Earth to the Moon. Elon would spit out the exact measurement at perigee and apogee. “If we had
a question, Tosca would always say, ‘Just ask genius boy,’” Maye said. “We could ask him about
anything. He just remembered it.” Elon cemented his bookworm reputation through his clumsy ways.
“He’s not very sporty,” said Maye.
Maye tells the story of Elon playing outside one night with his siblings and cousins. When one of
them complained of being frightened by the dark, Elon pointed out that “dark is merely the absence of
light,” which did little to reassure the scared child. As a youngster, Elon’s constant yearning to
correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation. Elon
genuinely thought that people would be happy to hear about the flaws in their thinking. “Kids don’t
like answers like that,” said Maye. “They would say, ‘Elon, we are not playing with you anymore.’ I
felt very sad as a mother because I think he wanted friends. Kimbal and Tosca would bring home
friends, and Elon wouldn’t, and he would want to play with them. But he was awkward, you know.”
Maye urged Kimbal and Tosca to include Elon. They responded as kids will. “But Mom, he’s not
fun.” As he got older, however, Elon would have strong, affectionate attachments to his siblings and
cousins—his mother’s sister’s sons. Though he kept to himself at school, Elon had an outgoing nature
with members of his family and eventually took on the role of elder and chief instigator among them.
For a while, life inside the Musk household was quite good. The family owned one of the biggest
houses in Pretoria thanks to the success of Errol’s engineering business. There’s a portrait of the three
Musk children taken when Elon was about eight years old that shows three blond, fit children sitting
next to each other on a brick porch with Pretoria’s famous purple jacaranda trees in the background.
Elon has large, rounded cheeks and a broad smile.
Then, not long after the photo was taken, the family fell apart. His parents separated and divorced
within the year. Maye moved with the kids to the family’s holiday home in Durban, on South Africa’s
eastern coast. After a couple of years of this arrangement, Elon decided he wanted to live with his
father. “My father seemed sort of sad and lonely, and my mom had three kids, and he didn’t have any,”
Musk said. “It seemed unfair.” Some members of Musk’s family have bought into this idea that Elon’s
logical nature propelled him, while others claim that his father’s mother, Cora, exerted a lot of
pressure on the boy. “I could not understand why he would leave this happy home I made for him—
this really happy home,” said Maye. “But Elon is his own person.” Justine Musk, Elon’s ex-wife and
the mother of his five boys, theorized that Elon identified more with the alpha male of the house and
wasn’t bothered by the emotional aspect of the decision. “I don’t think he was particularly close with
either parent,” Justine said, while describing the Musk clan overall as being cool and the opposite of
doting. Kimbal later opted to live with Errol as well, saying simply that by nature a son wants to live
with his father.
Whenever the topic of Errol arrives, members of Elon’s family clam up. They’re in agreement that
he is not a pleasant man to be around but have declined to elaborate. Errol has since been remarried,
and Elon has two, younger half sisters of whom he’s quite protective. Elon and his siblings seem
determined not to bad-mouth Errol publicly, so as not to upset the sisters.
The basics are as follows: Errol’s side of the family has deep South African roots. The Musk clan
can trace its presence in the country back about two hundred years and claim an entry in Pretoria’s
first phone book. Errol’s father, Walter Henry James Musk, was an army sergeant. “I remember him
almost never talking,” Elon said. “He would just drink whiskey and be grumpy and was very good at
doing crossword puzzles.” Cora Amelia Musk, Errol’s mother, was born in England to a family famed
for its intellectual genes. She embraced both the spotlight and her grandchildren. “Our grandmother
had this very dominant personality and was quite an enterprising woman,” said Kimbal. “She was a
very big influence in our lives.” Elon considered his relationship with Cora—or Nana, as he called
her—particularly tight. “After the divorce, she took care of me quite a lot,” he said. “She would pick
me up from school, and I would hang out with her playing Scrabble and that type of thing.”
On the surface, life at Errol’s house seemed grand. He had plenty of books for Elon to read from
cover to cover and money to buy a computer and other objects that Elon desired. Errol took his
children on numerous trips overseas. “It was an amazingly fun time,” said Kimbal. “I have a lot of fun
memories from that.” Errol also impressed the kids with his intellect and dealt out some practical
lessons. “He was a talented engineer,” Elon said. “He knew how every physical object worked.”
Both Elon and Kimbal were required to go to the sites of Errol’s engineering jobs and learn how to
lay bricks, install plumbing, fit windows, and put in electrical wiring. “There were fun moments,”
Elon said.
Errol was what Kimbal described as “ultra-present and very intense.” He would sit Elon and
Kimbal down and lecture at them for three to four hours without the boys being able to respond. He
seemed to delight in being hard on the boys and sucked the fun out of common childhood diversions.
From time to time, Elon tried to convince his dad to move to America and often talked about his
intentions to live in the United States later in life. Errol countered such dreams by trying to teach Elon
a lesson. He sent the housekeepers away and had Elon do all the chores to let him know what it was
like “to play American.”
While Elon and Kimbal declined to provide an exact recounting, they clearly experienced
something awful and profound during those years with their father. They both talk about having to
endure some form of psychological torture. “He definitely has serious chemical stuff,” said Kimbal.
“Which I am sure Elon and I have inherited. It was a very emotionally challenging upbringing, but it
made us who we are today.” Maye bristled when the subject of Errol came up. “Nobody gets along
with him,” she said. “He is not nice to anyone. I don’t want to tell stories because they are
horrendous. You know, you just don’t talk about it. There are kids and grandkids involved.”
When asked to chat about Elon, Errol responded via e-mail: “Elon was a very independent and
focused child at home with me. He loved computer science before anyone even knew what it was in
South Africa and his ability was widely recognized by the time he was 12 years old. Elon and his
brother Kimbal’s activities as children and young men were so many and varied that it’s difficult to
name just one, as they travelled together with me extensively in S. Africa and the world at large,
visiting all the continents regularly from the age of six onwards. Elon and his brother and sister were
and continue to be exemplary, in every way a father could want. I’m very proud of what Elon’s
accomplished.”
Errol copied Elon on this e-mail, and Elon warned me off corresponding with his father, insisting
that his father’s take on past events could not be trusted. “He is an odd duck,” Musk said. But, when
pressed for more information, Musk dodged. “It would certainly be accurate to say that I did not have
a good childhood,” he said. “It may sound good. It was not absent of good, but it was not a happy
childhood. It was like misery. He’s good at making life miserable—that’s for sure. He can take any
situation no matter how good it is and make it bad. He’s not a happy man. I don’t know . . . fuck . . . I
don’t know how someone becomes like he is. It would just cause too much trouble to tell you any
more.” Elon and Justine have vowed that their children will not be allowed to meet Errol.
When Elon was nearly ten years old, he saw a computer for the first time, at the Sandton City
Mall in Johannesburg. “There was an electronics store that mostly did hi-fi-type stuff, but then, in one
corner, they started stocking a few computers,” Musk said. He felt awed right away—“It was like,
‘Whoa. Holy shit!’”—by this machine that could be programmed to do a person’s bidding. “I had to
have that and then hounded my father to get the computer,” Musk said. Soon he owned a Commodore
VIC-20, a popular home machine that went on sale in 1980. Elon’s computer arrived with five
kilobytes of memory and a workbook on the BASIC programming language. “It was supposed to take
like six months to get through all the lessons,” Elon said. “I just got super OCD on it and stayed up for
three days with no sleep and did the entire thing. It seemed like the most super-compelling thing I had
ever seen.” Despite being an engineer, Musk’s father was something of a Luddite and dismissive of
the machine. Elon recounted that “he said it was just for games and that you’d never be able to do real
engineering on it. I just said, ‘Whatever.’”
While bookish and into his new computer, Elon quite often led Kimbal and his cousins (Kaye’s
children) Russ, Lyndon, and Peter Rive on adventures. They dabbled one year in selling Easter eggs
door-to-door in the neighborhood. The eggs were not well decorated, but the boys still marked them
up a few hundred percent for their wealthy neighbors. Elon also spearheaded their work with
homemade explosives and rockets. South Africa did not have the Estes rocket kits popular among
hobbyists, so Elon would create his own chemical compounds and put them inside of canisters. “It is
remarkable how many things you can get to explode,” Elon said. “Saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal are
the basic ingredients for gunpowder, and then if you combine a strong acid with a strong alkaline, that
will generally release a lot of energy. Granulated chlorine with brake fluid—that’s quite impressive.
I’m lucky I have all my fingers.” When not handling explosives, the boys put on layers of clothing and
goggles and shot each other with pellet guns. Elon and Kimbal raced dirt bikes against each other in
sandlots until Kimbal flew off his bike one day and hurtled into a barbed wire fence.
As the years went on, the cousins took their entrepreneurial pursuits more seriously, even
attempting at one point to start a video arcade. Without any parents knowing, the boys picked out a
spot for their arcade, got a lease, and started navigating the permit process for their business.
Eventually, they had to get someone over eighteen to sign a legal document, and neither the Rives’
father nor Errol would oblige. It would take a couple of decades, but Elon and the Rives would
eventually go into business together.
The boys’ most audacious exploits may have been their trips between Pretoria and Johannesburg.
During the 1980s, South Africa could be a terribly violent place, and the thirty-five-mile train trip
linking Pretoria and Johannesburg stood out as one of the world’s more dangerous rides. Kimbal
counted the train journeys as formative experiences for him and Elon. “South Africa was not a happygo-lucky place, and that has an impact on you. We saw some really rough stuff. It was part of an
atypical upbringing—just this insane set of experiences that changes how you view risk. You don’t
grow up thinking getting a job is the hard part. That’s not interesting enough.”
The boys ranged in age from about thirteen to sixteen and chased a mix of parties and geeky
exploits in Johannesburg. During one jaunt, they went to a Dungeons & Dragons tournament. “That
was us being nerd master supremes,” Musk said. All of the boys were into the role-playing game,
which requires someone to help set the mood for a contest by imagining and then describing a scene.
“You have entered a room, and there is a chest in the corner. What will you do? . . . You open the
chest. You’ve sprung a trap. Dozens of goblins are on the loose.” Elon excelled at this Dungeon
Master role and had memorized the texts detailing the powers of monsters and other characters.
“Under Elon’s leadership, we played the role so well and won the tournament,” said Peter Rive.
“Winning requires this incredible imagination, and Elon really set the tone for keeping people
captivated and inspired.”
The Elon that his peers encountered at school was far less inspirational. Throughout middle and
high school, Elon bounced around a couple of institutions. He spent the equivalent of eighth and ninth
grades at Bryanston High School. One afternoon Elon and Kimbal were sitting at the top of a flight of
concrete stairs eating when a boy decided to go after Elon. “I was basically hiding from this gang that
was fucking hunting me down for God knows fucking why. I think I accidentally bumped this guy at
assembly that morning and he’d taken some huge offense at that.” The boy crept up behind Musk,
kicked him in the head, and then shoved him down the stairs. Musk tumbled down the entire flight, and
a handful of boys pounced on him, some of them kicking Musk in the side and the ringleader bashing
his head against the ground. “They were a bunch of fucking psychos,” Musk said. “I blacked out.”
Kimbal watched in horror and feared for Elon’s life. He rushed down the stairs to find Elon’s face
bloodied and swollen. “He looked like someone who had just been in the boxing ring,” Kimbal said.
Elon then went to the hospital. “It was about a week before I could get back to school,” Musk said.
(During a news conference in 2013, Elon disclosed that he’d had a nose job to deal with the lingering
effects of this beating.)
For three or four years, Musk endured relentless hounding at the hands of these bullies. They went
so far as to beat up a boy that Musk considered his best friend until the child agreed to stop hanging
out with Musk. “Moreover, they got him—they got my best fucking friend—to lure me out of hiding so
they could beat me up,” Musk said. “And that fucking hurt.” While telling this part of the story, Musk’s
eyes welled up and his voice quivered. “For some reason, they decided that I was it, and they were
going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years, there was
no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the shit out of me, and then I’d
come home, and it would just be awful there as well. It was just like nonstop horrible.”
Musk spent the latter stages of his high school career at Pretoria Boys High School, where a
growth spurt and the generally better behavior of the students made life more bearable. While a
public school by definition, Pretoria Boys has functioned more like a private school for the last
hundred years. It’s the place you send a young man to get him ready to attend Oxford or Cambridge.
The boys from Musk’s class remember him as a likable, quiet, unspectacular student. “There were
four or five boys that were considered the very brightest,” said Deon Prinsloo, who sat behind Elon
in some classes. “Elon was not one of them.” Such comments were echoed by a half dozen boys who
also noted that Musk’s lack of interest in sports left him isolated in the midst of an athletics-obsessed
culture. “Honestly, there were just no signs that he was going to be a billionaire,” said Gideon Fourie,
another classmate. “He was never in a leadership position at school. I was rather surprised to see
what has happened to him.”
While Musk didn’t have any close friends at school, his eccentric interests did leave an
impression. One boy—Ted Wood—remembered Musk bringing model rockets to school and blasting
them off during breaks. This was not the only hint of his aspirations. During a science-class debate,
Elon gained attention for railing against fossil fuels in favor of solar power—an almost sacrilegious
stance in a country devoted to mining the earth’s natural resources. “He always had firm views on
things,” said Wood. Terency Beney, a classmate who stayed in touch with Elon over the years,
claimed that Musk had started fantasizing about colonizing other planets in high school as well.
In another nod to the future, Elon and Kimbal were chatting during a class break outdoors when
Wood interrupted them and asked what they were going on about. “They said, ‘We are talking about
whether there is a need for branch banking in the financial industry and whether we will move to
paperless banking.’ I remember thinking that was such an absurd comment to make. I said, ‘Yeah,
that’s great.’”*
While Musk might not have been among the academic elite in his class, he was among a handful of
students with the grades and self-professed interest to be selected for an experimental computer
program. Students were plucked out of a number of schools and brought together to learn the BASIC,
COBOL, and Pascal programming languages. Musk continued to augment these technological leanings
with his love of science fiction and fantasy and tried his hand at writing stories that involved dragons
and supernatural beings. “I wanted to write something like Lord of the Rings,” he said.
Maye viewed these high school years through a mother’s eyes and recounted plenty of tales of
Musk performing spectacular academic feats. The video game he wrote, she said, impressed much
older, more experienced techies. He aced math exams well beyond his years. And he had that
incredible memory. The only reason he did not outrank the other boys was a lack of interest in the
work prescribed by the school.
As Musk saw it, “I just look at it as ‘What grades do I need to get where I want to go?’ There
were compulsory subjects like Afrikaans, and I just didn’t see the point of learning that. It seemed
ridiculous. I’d get a passing grade and that was fine. Things like physics and computers—I got the
highest grade you can get in those. There needs to be a reason for a grade. I’d rather play video
games, write software, and read books than try and get an A if there’s no point in getting an A. I can
remember failing subjects in like fourth and fifth grade. Then, my mother’s boyfriend told me I’d be
held back if I didn’t pass. I didn’t actually know you had to pass the subjects to move to the next
grade. I got the best grades in class after that.”
At seventeen, Musk left South Africa for Canada. He has recounted this journey quite often in the
press and typically leans on two descriptions of the motivation for his flight. The short version is that
Musk wanted to get to the United States as quickly as possible and could use Canada as a pit stop via
his Canadian ancestry. The second go-to story that Musk relies on has more of a social conscience.
South Africa required military service at the time. Musk wanted to avoid joining the military, he has
said, because it would have forced him to participate in the apartheid regime.
What rarely gets mentioned is that Musk attended the University of Pretoria for five months before
heading off on his grand adventure. He began pursuing physics and engineering but put lackluster
effort into the work and soon dropped out of school. Musk characterized the time at university as just
something to do while he awaited his Canadian documentation. In addition to being an
inconsequential part of his life, Musk lazing through school to avoid South Africa’s required military
service rather undermines the tale of a brooding, adventurous youth that he likes to tell, which is
likely why the stint at the University of Pretoria never seems to come up.
There’s no question, though, that Musk had been pining to get to the United States on a visceral
level for a long time. Musk’s early inclination toward computers and technology had fostered an
intense interest in Silicon Valley, and his trips overseas had reinforced the idea that America was the
place to get things done. South Africa, by contrast, presented far less opportunity for an
entrepreneurial soul. As Kimbal put it, “South Africa was like a prison for someone like Elon.”
Musk’s opportunity to flee arrived with a change in the law that allowed Maye to pass her
Canadian citizenship to her children. Musk immediately began researching how to complete the
paperwork for this process. It took about a year to receive the approvals from the Canadian
government and to secure a Canadian passport. “That’s when Elon said, ‘I’m leaving for Canada,’”
Maye said. In these pre-Internet days, Musk had to wait three agonizing weeks to get a plane ticket.
Once it arrived, and without flinching, he left home for good.

Published by turkishinvest

professional agent from turkey for help and guide of turkish investments on property sectors for business and citizenships..

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